Before she won her primary in August, Jahana Hayes had never run for public office. She hadn’t even thought about it. “I spent the last two years waiting for someone to step up,” says Hayes, 45. “I wasn’t seeing it, and I just decided I’ll give it a shot.”
Hayes, whom President Obama named National Teacher of the Year in 2016, is used to stepping up when no one else will. As a social-studies teacher in a high-poverty school district in Waterbury, Connecticut, she mentored at-risk students. “They were living with grandparents, they had parents who struggled with addiction, they were transient,” Hayes says. “They would say, ‘You don’t get it,’ and I’d say, ‘No, I do.’ ”
Hayes grew up in public housing in Waterbury until her family was evicted when she was in the sixth grade; her mother was an addict for most of her life. At 16, Hayes got pregnant. She earned her diploma in a program for teen parents in the basement of Waterbury’s city hall, and worked three jobs while getting a college degree. “I didn’t even tell anyone I’d enrolled because I wasn’t sure I’d finish,” she says.
After earning her master’s, she returned to her hometown high school to teach. “I realized very quickly that many of the students in my class were living in the exact same situation that I had grown up in,” she says. “Just not really seeing any prospects of a bright future.”
She spoke candidly with her students about her background, and she piloted programs at the school that she hoped would give them the tools and resources she’d used, to overcome challenges in their own lives — a community-service program and an initiative to retain high-achieving students.
For her work, Hayes was recognized as Connecticut’s teacher of the year — the first ever from a Title I school district, where 100 percent of students qualify for free lunch.
As the national teacher of the year, she traveled around the country, and the world, leading workshops for other educators. “I learned that we’re not that different,” she says. “We have the same concerns whether you’re in a large, urban school system or in a one-room, rural schoolhouse.”
Hayes was in Tunisia, on a trip sponsored by the State Department as part of her duties, the day after the 2016 election. Her daughter called. “My son had gotten off the school bus – he was eight at the time,” Hayes says. “And he asked her if his dad and I went to Africa to find us a new house because someone on the bus told him: We have a new president, they’re going to build a wall and all of the brown people have to leave.”
It wasn’t long after that that Hayes started thinking seriously about the prospect of bringing those lessons — from teaching, from her travels, from her childhood — to Congress.
“You can’t unlearn all of this stuff you learned,” Hayes says, “and you say, ‘OK, how can I begin to address these problems? I can’t just sit by and let these things happen anymore.’”